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Jeannette Walls is a New York journalist. She spent many years as a gossip columnist, and the gossip industry was the subject of her first book. She is better known, however, for her 2005 memoir, The Glass Castle: A Memoir, a shocking and vivid account of her impoverished upbringing by neglectful parents in Arizona and West Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Poverty
For a woman who was later to succeed in the highly competitive world of the New York media, Walls had an unlikely start in life. Biographical sources do not list her exact date of birth, but it is believed to have been in 1960, in Phoenix, Arizona. Walls was the daughter of Rex and Rose Marie Walls. Her mother was an artist and writer but seems to have been entirely ill-suited to motherhood. Unable to adjust to the demands of raising four children, she preferred to spend her time on her artistic projects. Her father was a highly intelligent, self-taught man who regarded himself as an inventor, and he was able to teach his children science, as well as how to shoot pistols. He also encouraged them to develop a fearless approach to life. But like his wife, he was hardly an ideal parent. He was an alcoholic and a gambler who, on one occasion, even stole his children’s savings in order to go on a drunken binge. Sometimes Rose Marie would work as a teacher and Rex as an electrician, but neither parent was able to keep a job for long, which meant that the family had little money. Walls grew up in extreme poverty; she and her siblings were left to fend for themselves, lacking adequate food or clothing. Sometimes Jeannette fed herself by rummaging through trash cans at school, or even by stealing from the other students, and the children would also eat cat food. All four siblings, one boy and three girls, learned at a young age how to support one another.
During Walls’s early childhood, her parents moved around from town to town in the Southwest before deciding to move to Welch, West Virginia, where Rex Walls grew up. Welch was a small, impoverished mining community in the Appalachian Mountains, and the Walls became the poorest of the poor, living in a run-down house without running water and often with no electricity. Jeannette’s deprived upbringing, however, did not seem to affect her success at school. Her parents, deeply flawed though they may have been, encouraged their children to read and learn. In high school, Walls wrote for the school newspaper and developed a love of journalism, thus planting the seeds of her later career.
Moving to New York
When Walls was seventeen, she decided to strike out on her own, dropping out of high school and moving from West Virginia to New York City. Her sister, Lori, had already moved there, and the two sisters shared a Bronx apartment. Their brother joined them a year later, and their other sister would soon come to New York, too. Walls finished high school and got an internship and then a job at a Brooklyn alternative newspaper. She was happy with her success but decided that she needed to go to college. After excelling at admission tests, she entered Barnard College in Manhattan. She managed to cram her classes into three days each week, and she worked various jobs during the other four days in order to support herself. During her senior year, her funds were short and she thought she might have to drop out, but her father came up with the money that allowed her to continue her studies. Both her parents had followed their children to New York City; for a while they lived with Lori and Jeannette, but when that did not work out, they lived first in a van and then on the streets. New York City, at the time, had a growing population of homeless people.
Walls graduated from Barnard in 1984 at the age of twenty-four and decided to pursue a career in journalism. Within three years she was employed at New York magazine, writing a column that covered the Manhattan cultural and political scene. In 1988, she married a wealthy businessman, Eric Goldberg, and started to live the good life in her husband’s Park Avenue apartment. She kept her impoverished background a secret, and people tended to assume that, as a Barnard College graduate and now married to wealth, she had had an easy life of privilege.
Walls’s column in New York was such a success that two New York newspapers offered her the opportunity to write a daily gossip column. She turned down both offers, preferring instead to join Esquire in 1993. Five years later she moved to MSNBC.com, where she wrote the gossip column, “Scoop.” She quickly became known as one of the top writers in her field, digging out all the news and secrets that the celebrities might prefer not to be made public.
Walls’s father died in 1994, and her marriage ended in divorce in 1996. However, her career continued on an upward trajectory. In 2000, she published her first book, Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip, an account of the role gossip about the rich, the famous, and the influential has played in the media from the 1950s to the 1990s. Dish is a serious book in which Walls examines various issues surrounding gossip: the ambivalent attitude that celebrities have to the invasion of their privacy; the role politics plays in issues of privacy; the distinction, often blurred, between news and gossip; and how, over the decades, the public longing for more and more racy tidbits about the lives of celebrities has increased.
Meanwhile, Walls was preparing to tell the story of her childhood. She had been considering doing this for nearly twenty years and had tried, without success, to write it in fictionalized form. She was persuaded to tackle the project in the form of a memoir by her friend John Taylor, a journalist whom she had first met when they both worked for New York magazine. She and Taylor were walking in Central Park when Taylor pointed out to her that whenever he asked her about her family, she changed the subject. She was worried that if she told him, or anyone, about her background, they would not want to be friends with her anymore. But she told Taylor anyway, and he suggested that the story would make an interesting book. She and Taylor married in 2002. Walls worked on the book for several years, keeping it a secret from almost everyone. She described writing it as a cathartic experience for her. The result of her labors, The Glass Castle: A Memoir, was published in 2005. The title was taken from the name given to the home that her father claimed he would one day build for his children.
Still insecure about what the consequences of publishing her memoir might be, Walls was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did this not happen, but that she made new friends and deepened existing friendships. Reading her honest confessions about the struggles of her childhood, people opened up to her about their own lives. The novel was a great success with reviewers and the public. Even Walls’s mother, at the time living in a dilapidated building in New York with no electricity, read it and reportedly enjoyed it.
In a 2005 interview with Rachel Kramer Bussel of Gothamist, Walls commented, ”I’ve never really felt bitter. I’m a really lucky person, I’ve got a great job, I’ve got a wonderful husband, I’ve got a great life.”
Works in Literary Context
The Confessional Memoir
The memoir is a literary genre that has existed almost as long as literature has been written. It is similar to autobiography but covers only a portion of the writer’s life. The traditional memoir was usually limited to the writer’s participation in public affairs. A retired statesman, for example, might write his memoirs concerning the people and the issues he had dealt with during his time in power. In the 1990s a new kind of memoir began to gain popularity in the United States. Written often by people who were not in the public eye, such memoirs featured more intimate, personal, and even sensational elements that, in earlier times, a memoirist would not have considered being worthy of record—not to mention the public embarrassment that might ensue from publishing such revelations. Examples of the new trend in memoir writing, which was sometimes called the confessional memoir, include Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), and Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It (1995). Commentators sometimes attributed the rise of such memoirs to the popularity of confessional talk shows on television, in which people spoke about the intimate details of their lives. Another recent example of a confessional memoir is Prozac Nation (1994), by Elizabeth Lee Wurtzel, which she published at the age of twenty-six. The book describes her battle with depression while she was a college student. Susanna Kaysen published a similar memoir in the same year, titled Girl, Interrupted. The popularity of these memoirs of abuse, mental illness, and various forms of childhood deprivation helped to create the atmosphere in which Walls felt able to write and publish The Glass Castle and for it to become a best-seller.
Works in Critical Context
Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip
Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip was well received by reviewers. Noting that ”Like it or not, gossip is an integral part of our information-driven world,” the reviewer for Publishers Weekly concludes, ”Provocative and invariably entertaining, Walls gives dishing the dirt its historical, social and political due.” In Library Journal, Kelli N. Perkins comments that ”Walls dishes up plenty of gossip while chronicling the escalating American lust for insider information on celebrities.” In Perkins’s view, the book is ”an entertaining insider’s look and a solid history of gossip.” For Jonathan Bing, writing for Variety, ”Walls proves the quintessential insider, and a highly entertaining one at that. Her accounts . . . lay bare the inner workings of the major gossip outlets in their ongoing efforts to somehow balance dish, cronyism and actual news.” Bing did, however, have some reservations, claiming that Dish ”is long on detail and short on analysis.” Bing also pointed out some errors and suggested that the book was likely a rush job, cobbled together at the breakneck speed of a daily columnist with a page to fill.”
The Glass Castle: A Memoir
The Glass Castle: A Memoir was far more widely reviewed than Walls’s earlier book. There was widespread appreciation of her courage in writing the book, and the spirit with which she dealt with such extreme adversity. The reviewer for Publishers Weekly notes that Walls doesn’t pull her punches . . . .in this excellent, unusual book.” The reviewer also pays tribute to Walls’s ”fantastic storytelling knack.” In Newsweek, Barbara Kantrowitz describes the book as an unsparing but loving memoir,” concluding, What saves this book from mind-numbing grimness is the family’s extraordinary resilience.” In Booklist, the reviewer observes the dual nature of the
book, which speaks candidly about the poverty, hunger, and bullying Walls and her siblings endured as well as surprising affection, the strength of family ties, and the human spirit.” In the New York Times Book Review, Francine Prose also comments on this aspect of what she called a chilling memoir,” appreciating how, in spite of the horrific childhood Walls endured, she still managed to appreciate, forgive, and love her parents rather than judge them. Prose writes that Walls has a telling memory for detail and an appealing, unadorned style,” and Prose also appreciates the author’s refusal to indulge in amateur psychoanalysis, to descend to the jargon of dysfunction or theorize . . . about the sources of her parents’ behavior.” The Glass Castle: A Memoir was also well received on the other side of the Atlantic. In Britain’s The Spectator, Olivia Glazebrook comments that she read the book in one sitting and was amazed by it: ”Walls and her three siblings survived an upbringing truly stranger than fiction—if it were invented, it would not be credible.” Like other reviewers, Glazebrook comments on Walls’s skill in creating a balanced account of her extra-ordinary childhood, declaring that as she and her siblings did, we must both love and hate her parents.”
- Bing, Jonathan. Review of Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip. Variety (June 5, 2000): 31.
- Glazebrook, Olivia. ”Learning How to Swim.” Spectator (April 30, 2005): 38-39.
- Kantrowitz, Barbara. Review of The Glass Castle: A Memoir. Newsweek (March 7, 2005): 55.
- Perkins, Kelli N. Review of Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip. Library Journal (April 1, 2000): 119. Prose, Francine. ”Outrageous Misfortune.” New York
- Times Book Review (March 13, 2005): 1. Review of The Glass Castle: A Memoir. Booklist (April 1, 2006): 35.
- Review of The Glass Castle: A Memoir. Publishers Weekly (January 17, 2005): 41.
- Review of Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip. Publishers Weekly (February 7, 2000): 74.
- Valby, Karen. ”Coming Up for Air.” Entertainment Weekly (March 18, 2005): 32.
- Bussel, Rachel Kramer. ”Jeannette Walls, author, The Glass Castle, gossip columnist, MSNBC.com.” Gothamist. Accessed November 18, 2008, from http://gothamist. com/2005/05/27/jeannette_walls_author_the_glass_ castle_gossip_columnist_msnbccom.php.
- ”Jeannette Walls Answers Your Questions: A Q + A With the Chronicler of New York’s Power Elite.” ABC News. Accessed November 18, 2008, from http:// abcnews.go.com/Primetime/Entertainment/Story? id=552776&page=1.
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